Saudi Arabia puts 81 to death in its largest mass execution
Saudi Arabia on Saturday executed 81 people convicted of killings, belonging to militant groups and other crimes. It was the largest known mass execution carried out in the kingdom in its modern history.
The number surpassed even the 63 executed in January 1980 after being convicted of seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in the worst-ever militant attack to target the kingdom and Islam’s holiest site.
It wasn’t clear why the kingdom chose Saturday for the executions, though they came as much of the world’s attention remained focused on Russia’s war on Ukraine and as energy prices spike worldwide.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly has planned a trip to Saudi Arabia this week for talks on oil prices.
The number of death penalty cases being carried out in Saudi Arabia dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, though the kingdom continued to behead convicts under King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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The state-run Saudi Press Agency announced Saturday’s executions, saying those killed had been “convicted of various crimes, including the murdering of innocent men, women and children.”
The kingdom said some of those executed were members of Al Qaeda or Islamic State or backers of Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Iran-backed Houthis since 2015 in neighboring Yemen in an effort to restore the internationally recognized government to power.
Those executed included 73 Saudis, seven Yemenis and one Syrian. The report did not say where the executions took place.
“The accused were provided with the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process, which found them guilty of committing multiple heinous crimes that left a large number of civilians and law enforcement officers dead,” the Saudi Press Agency said. “The kingdom will continue to take a strict and unwavering stance against terrorism and extremist ideologies that threaten the stability of the entire world.”
The press agency’s report did not say how the executions were carried out, but beheading is the typical method in Saudi Arabia.
An announcement by Saudi state television described those executed as having “followed the footsteps of Satan” in carrying out their crimes.
The executions drew immediate international criticism.
“The world should know by now that when Mohammed bin Salman promises reform, bloodshed is bound to follow,” said Soraya Bauwens, deputy director of Reprieve, a London-based advocacy group.
Ali Adubusi, director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, said some of those executed had been tortured and faced trials “carried out in secret.”
“These executions are the opposite of justice,” he said.
The kingdom’s last mass execution came in January 2016, when 47 people were killed, including a prominent opposition Shiite cleric who had rallied demonstrations.
In 2019, the kingdom beheaded 37 Saudi citizens, most of them minority Shiites, in a mass execution across the country for alleged terrorism-related crimes. The severed body and head of a convicted extremist were nailed to a pole as a warning to others.
Activists, including Ali Ahmed of the U.S.-based Institute for Gulf Affairs and the group Democracy for the Arab World Now, said they believe that more than three dozen of those executed Saturday were Shiites.
Shiites, who live primarily in the kingdom’s oil-rich east, have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens. Executions of Shiites in the past have stirred regional unrest. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, remains engaged in diplomatic talks with its Shiite regional rival Iran to try to ease years-long tensions.
The 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque remains a crucial moment in the history of the oil-rich kingdom.
A band of ultraconservative Saudi Sunni militants took the Grand Mosque, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba that Muslims pray toward five times a day, demanding the abdication of the Al Saud royal family. A two-week siege that followed ended with an official death toll of 229. The kingdom’s rulers soon thereafter further embraced Wahhabism, an ultraconservative Islamic doctrine.
Since taking power under his father, Crown Prince Mohammed has liberalized life in the kingdom, opening movie theaters, allowing women to drive and defanging the religious police.
However, U.S. intelligence agencies believe the crown prince also ordered the slaying and dismemberment of Saudi national and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, while overseeing airstrikes in Yemen that killed hundreds of civilians.
In an interview with the Atlantic, the crown prince discussed the death penalty, saying a “high percentage” of executions had been halted through the payment of “blood money” settlements to grieving families.
“Well, about the death penalty, we got rid of all of it, except for one category, and this one is written in the Quran, and we cannot do anything about it, even if we wished to do something, because it is clear teaching in the Quran,” the prince said, according to a transcript published by the Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al Arabiya.
“If someone killed someone, another person, the family of that person has the right, after going to the court, to apply capital punishment, unless they forgive him. Or if someone threatens the life of many people, that means he has to be punished by the death penalty.”
He added: “Regardless if I like it or not, I don’t have the power to change it.”
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